Monday, April 19, 2004

Game 6

Having spent much of the first five playoff games doing homework for my big final project, with the University of Louisville rushing to be done by Derby, I didn't get to see much of the games, and certainly didn't get a chance to attend. So, Saturday, I had to make the drive, even though I would have to rush home that night to see Thunder Over Louisville, our gigantic fireworks display. It was well worth the effort, despite the loss.

As I got close to town, I heard Predators promos on radio stations that weren't even broadcasting the game. As in, ESPN recordings of Vokoun making saves mixed with inspirational music, followed by a countdown to game time. I saw "Go Predators" on a Wendy's sign. I heard stories about people just going nuts over the team, and knowing that it had to be true. Nashville loves this team, but we didn't show up to the Arena this year due to the past five seasons of losing. Hey, Chicago was down in the four figures in attendance at one point, but since they're one of the Original Six they (perhaps correctly) got a free pass. Judge our passion by the playoffs game crowds, not the regular season.

Buying my scalped ticket as I always do, loving again that it's legal in Tennessee, I plopped down in a lower bowl seat for $50. The list price was $62, so I felt I got a steal. I settled in just as the crowd was starting to get noisy. When the countdown on the pre-game skate hit about 20 minutes left to go, we started getting into it, nervous and excited as could be, waiting for the team to come out. It was finally announced that they were coming soon, almost like they were leading us on. When the team finally hit the ice, announcing it to us as they were in the tunnel, the crowd noise was deafening, and this was only for the pre-game skate! The horn was blaring, but could barely be heard. You know you've got something big when young girls start screeching. Annoying normally, but reassuring here.

The loudest the crowd got was when they announced that we were going live on ABC. Inferiority Complex ahoy! Don't you just love Nashville! But seriously, we wanted to show the rest of the country that we fans are for real, and that we deserve to keep this team. Above all else, I hope everyone realizes that now. I was watching this game, feeling sad at times that I may never seek Walker, Vokoun, Johnson, Tootoo, Hartnell, and all my other favorites again. Don't take this away from us, NHL!

I was thrilled we drew the Red Wings for the playoffs. About 10% of the crowd was wearing the red and white, and were generally obnoxious and arrogant as could be. I'm sick and tired of the Detroit Free Press and their fans at the Nashville Arena treating us as a second-class sports town, full of Southern hicks who don't even know the icing rule. I rarely enjoyed sports columns like I did the panic they felt after Game 4. If they and the team had treated us as real competition like they should have, they never would have been tied 2-2. Very poor on their part.

The Preds simply must have been nervous in the first two minutes. Knowing that the town had fallen back in love with them - knowing that the Wings had killed them in the last game - not knowing how to prepare mentally - I'm not sure they knew how to handle it. It felt like a lack of playoff experience. After the defense allowed the open shots resulting in the goals, Trotz wisely called timeout, settling the team down. It worked, but the offense could never get on track.

To the crowd's credit, they stayed in the game. I was rarely as proud of them as I was at that point, trying to will a goal out of the team, understanding that letting in another would be deadly. So much of the credit goes to Section 303, our chant leaders, who are loved almost as much as the team is. But, as the game waned on, we got less and less excited, as Detroit killed every opportunity. By the second period we had forgotten how to shoot properly, making Power Plays excruciating. The miracle never occurred.

With twenty seconds left in the game, and we fans knowing that everything was done, it was only appropriate that the crowd would rise en masse, one last time, to cheer the team on. The standing ovation continued through the traditional handshakes, where some of the Red Wings sportingly went out of their way to congratulate Vokoun (although I heard Chelios, that sissy, didn't shake hands!). As Vokoun left the ice, the cheering approached its loudest of the night. We love that guy.

My only complaints are these. The Predators management needs to do a study in crowd reactions. When we started six years, and no one knew what was going on, constant video clips and promotions were needed to keep everyone interested. In this game, we needed none of that. Over and over again the crowd would want to react to the game, but some video from some unknown Western would interrupt us. This angered me throughout. The worst case was at the end of the game, after the announcement of the three stars, when Section 303 tried to do one last "Let's go Predators" chant. But the PA system decided to play some Tina Turner song or something, cutting them off. Just awful. It felt unfulfilling, like a bad movie ending.

And, of course, passing, passing, passing. Learn to pass, boys! They have never mastered the art of this since inception, and when a team as good as the Wings is the opponent, this spells death. Breakouts are non-existent, and hopeful passes to no one are common. The coach really needs to address this. It happened again Sunday, and I hate seeing it.

But it's the crowd I love to see, making up for any deficiencies. The rest of the nation doesn't realize what a good sports team can mean to my city. We feel negatively stereotyped in general, and certainly get angry when another pundit says we never should have gotten a team. They've probably never seen the Arena packed and heard us yell. We have come a long way in the last six years. Goodness, when I was growing up, we didn't even get SportsChannelAmerica, and so could never watch any games! It was as foreign as cricket to me, except for what I saw on SportsCenter, and I know I'm not alone on that. But now, the crowd knows icing, offsides, and, most impressively, understands penalties and how they are called. I even had to learn this, and I'm a sports nut. I noticed this increased attentiveness throughout the game, and was pleased.

On the way home, I was listening to the two post-game radio shows, and every caller expressed how much they love the team. Many spoke of the plusses and minuses of individual players on the team and their respective lines, showing a fine depth of knowledge, and most graciously congratulated the opposition on their deserved victory. And everybody wants the Predators to stay. I'm looking forwards to the collective bargaining talks because it might level the playing field and allow my team to compete. Everyone should look out for us if the salary structure becomes more equal. The fan support will be second to none. In this playoff series we've regained the title of "Noisiest Fans in the NHL" that we held a few years back, and I'm sure we'll keep it if we're given something to cheer about.


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